The MOOC: Window into our Pedagogical Soul

Remember the “Year of the MOOC” of 2012? What would possess us to even consider such a thing as a Massive Open Online Course? Maybe the MOOC captured our life-long-learner imaginations with the potential to enable free university-level education on an enormous scale.

This royalty free image is from
This royalty free image comes from

Even the least of us could take a MIT or Stanford course from the leading expert of the world. Or, maybe the MOOC captured our mind’s eye because at our core we are teachers with an absorbing yearning to share our insightful understandings with as many as possible. But alas, the MOOC luster faded quickly.

There were irreconcilable differences; a feeling of betrayal of our basic values coming from staggering low completion rates. We left “divorce court” feeling the MOOC was nothing more than “mere marketing” hype or, at its worst as abject failures.

There were many explanations for the low completion rates but the principal cause centered on a basic pedagogical necessity for learners to be active and receive personal attention and interactions from their teacher. Being a student in a MOOC was much like being a dazed-video–watching-couch-potato in an infinite virtual lecture hall. It didn’t take long for our eyes to glaze over as we faded into the sunset.

But wait – maybe it’s premature to shut the MOOC door and send it to the “it was a nice idea … but” file. Coursera, the biggest MOOC provider, is investing in R&D, trying to find solutions. Their research led them to embrace an innovative active learning style trying to lift students off those binge-watching couches and have them face their screens and interact.

An experimental section of a Coursera coding skill MOOC requires students viewing a video and immediately demonstrate mastery by building a piece of software. The R&D Team teased out some 20 to 40 coding errors learners commonly make. If the student’s submission reveals common conceptual coding mistakes, a pop-up window appears with a clue, suggesting why they may have made the error.

“(Its) like a … (teacher) looking over your shoulder, giving immediate feedback associated with your mistake,” said Coursera R&D scientist Zhenghao Chen. “Students should have a clear idea why they failed,” Chen said. “Feedback prompts them to correct their misconceptions, to think along different paths.” (Ubel, 2017).

Coursera is not alone. Sense, a New York-based tech start-up with R&D labs in Tel Aviv is testing pattern recognition and semantic analysis methods that automatically bundle student answers to gather common results. The instructor might feed in 50 or more quiz solutions at any time.

The system analyzes student responses and reveals common patterns – successful responses, common mistakes, and even novel solutions – shared among submissions. With the Sense automatic batching in a MOOC, with even thousands of students, faculty can quickly pinpoint useful responses to learners who give similar answers – personalizing faculty-student interaction at scale.

What is the MOOC take away? The MOOC is a recent phenomenon but it is confirming the foundations of our understandings of learning we have understood for decades – authentic learning is active. Think: John Dewey and Jean Piaget.

It is easy to point our self-righteous finger at the MOOC– the truth is we are all sinners.  We know the power of active learning but get caught up in our own MOOC (Massive Onslaught Of Content). We resort to lectures and multiple choice assessments rather than encouraging active learning.

Maybe the research coming from MOOCs will cause us to stop, reflect, and discover new tools helping us reconnect to our pedagogical souls.

Ubel, R. (2017, July). There’s no success like failure.  Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from